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One of the perverse pleasures of reading showbiz autobiographies is witnessing their clueless authors plummet into the abyss separating intention and effect. Cocooned by sycophants and swollen with self-regard, they fail to notice the glaring discrepancy between the magnanimous images they attempt to convey and the vanity and pettiness they inadvertently betray.
Novelist-journalist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne’s aptly titled Monster: Living off the Big Screen is a notable contribution to the literature of celebrity self-deception. The dust jacket of this account of the eight-year gestation of Up Close & Personal, a screenplay he wrote with his wife, novelist-essayist Joan Didion, promises readers “a hilarious saga that Dunne relates with a wicked eye and perfect pitch for the absurdities and savage infighting of the film industry.” What it actually delivers is 203 wearisome pages of money-grubbing, name-dropping, ass-licking, and fatuous self-justification.
The book’s title stems from a vigorous restaurant argument between a Disney executive and a writer protesting changes the studio demanded in his in-production screenplay:
“[T]he division president reached under the table, pretended to grab a small predatory animal from its lair, and then, as if clutching the creature by the neck in his fist, exhibited his empty, clawlike hand to the people around the table. He asked the screenwriter if he saw the monster, and the writer, not knowing what else to do, nodded yes.
‘I’m going to put it back in its cage now,’ the executive said, drawing each word out, ‘and I never want you to force me to bring it out again.’ Then he mimed putting the monster back into its cage under the table. When he was done, the executive asked the writer, ‘Do you know what the monster is?’
The writer shook his head.
The executive said, ‘It’s our money.’”
Numerous studies have been written about American writers and their battles with this monster. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, Gore Vidal, Jim Thompsoneven the sublime Vladimir Nabokovhave heeded its siren call, usually with disastrous artistic consequences. (Faulkner is the notable exception. Whenever possible, he wrote his screenplays in Mississippi and, with the help of savvy collaborators, managed to grind out several classic movies, among them Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, and the soon-to-be-reissued The Big Sleep.)
These authors rarely deluded themselves into thinking they were doing anything other than hack work, accepting studio jobs to subsidize their literary efforts. Dunne views himself and his wife as New Hollywood inheritors of this trade-off, without admitting (or even realizing) that their books aren’t significantly more ambitious or accomplished than their hired-gun Tinseltown assignments. True Confessions, Dutch Shea Jr., and other Dunne novels are the work of a second-rate pen pusher who lacks the harrowing vision and stylistic distinction of Chandler, Thompson, and other crime writers. For reasons that bewilder me, Didion’s work is taken more seriously by the literary establishment, but her mannered, angst-laden prose, as anorectic as her book-jacket likenesses, are upmarket equivalents of her mate’s pulp. The howlingly affected opening line of her reputation-making Play It as It Lays”What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask”left me slack-jawed with disbelief, and I raced through the paperback in order to toss it onto a picnic bonfire, the only book I have ever incinerated.
Unlike their illustrious predecessors, Dunne and Didion have very little to sell out; their novels read like blueprints for trifling movies. In his chronicle of how a projected film biography of doomed network anchorwoman Jessica Savitch devolved into the embarrassingly inane Up Close & Personal, Dunne never claims that he and his wife set out to write a quality movie.
Their putative motive is the essence of expediency: “I had undergone a cardiac procedure called angioplasty in the fall of 1987, and it was imperative that we remain covered by the Writers Guild health plan, which requires a continuum of television or motion-picture work for it to remain in effect.”
People who attain a certain level of media notoriety and begin believing their own publicity grow contemptuous of the public’s gullibility. Their fame deludes them into thinking that any baloney they slice will be unquestioningly swallowed. Dunne’s justification for writing Up Close & Personal eclipses most previous humdingers. Millions of working-class Americans manage to pony up the admittedly exorbitant premiums for health insurance. Are the Dunnes, with seven produced movies and 21 published books, too poor to purchase a health care policy? And in the unlikely event that this is the case, couldn’t they borrow a few grand from Dunne’s successful novelist-reporter brother, Dominick?
The Dunnes appear to have no lack of funds for other indulgences: two Manhattan apartments, an escape to Honolulu’s Kahala Hilton (where Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg was in residence) to meet a screenplay deadline, a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel while working on another assignment, a jaunt to Italy to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of friends, a 10-day spree in Paris (“a birthday present to myself”). Couldn’t they have sacrificed one of those luxuries to buy health insurance, thereby freeing up Writers Guild funds for the medical needs of less privileged scribblers? For a book whose title implicitly condemns the monstrous power of money, Monster is cagily reticent about the topicno Dunne-Didion screenwriting salaries are ever specifiedwhile on virtually every page obsessed with the pair’s strategies to obtain ever-increasing amounts of same. Paramount approaches the duo to write a revision of Primal Fear “for which they were prepared to pay an unseemly amount of money.” Another Paramount offer proposes “several hundred thousand dollars more than we had ever received.” An invitation to resume work on Up Close & Personal after they have abandoned the project holds out “a possibility we could come back, and that if we did, the price was going to hurt.”
Monster’s excruciatingly tedious accounts of deal-making are occasionally interspersed with swanky glimpses of the Dunnes’ celebrity pals and insider Industry (the word always capitalized) status. In the second paragraph, we learn that the author met Grace Kelly during his sophomore year at Princeton. Fifty pages later, we’re allowed a peek at Natasha Richardson’s first wedding, which was held at one of the Dunnes’ New York apartments and “went off without a hitch.” After a protocol briefing, we’re permitted to crash the late Swifty Lazar’s exclusive Oscar-night party at Spago (“…it was invariably referred to as ‘Swifty Lazar’s party’ but people in the Industry would always say they were going to ‘Irving and Mary’s’”) and offered other helpful insights into Tinseltown punctilios. “Joan and I knew Simpson and Bruckheimer in the way that everyone who works in Hollywood knows everyone else who works in Hollywood. Eyes would meet in a restaurant, and there would be an almost imperceptible nod that would be returned with an equally imperceptible nod; words were never exchanged nor introductions necessary.” Dunne’s moistest butt-kiss is reserved for Robert Redford: “To me, he is Robert Redford, or just ‘Redford’ when I am referring to him. In an era of faux egalitarian familiarity, when presidential contenders pass themselves off as Bill and Phil, ‘Bob’ is somehow diminishing; it would be like calling Woodrow Wilson ‘Woody.’ Behind the incandescent smile is a reserve that does not invite intrusion. What he brings to the party is the power of his iconography, a presence that must be heeded.”
Just as screenwriters Dunne and Didion have twice recycled A Star Is Born (for the unspeakable 1976 Streisand remake and, blatantly but unofficially, for Up Close & Personal), the author cannibalizes his own journalism to pad out Monster. Chunks of his fawning New Yorker obit of producer Don Simpsonby all other accounts, an infantile ego run amokare recycled, along with additional passages from articles whose uncredited provenances I no longer recall. Although Dunne’s prose is impersonally clean, he has yet to master the intricacies of “who” and “whom.” (“It was the most positive spin we could put on the life of a newscaster who David Brinkley had once publicly labeled ‘the dumbest woman I ever met.’”) Such a grammatical lapse in a sentence about dumbness isn’t too swift. Whoops, I mean too Irving.
In the book’s coda, Dunne offers a final accounting of Up Close & Personal’s financesits production cost ($60 million), first-weekend box-office take ($11.5 million), and ultimate worldwide gross (over $100 million). What he coyly fails to mention is how much he and his wife profited from their eight-year association with the project, an unforgivable omission in a book whose ostensible point is that the New Hollywood’s fixation on the bottom line has rendered quality filmmaking virtually impossible. This year’s Best Picture Oscar nomineesonly one Hollywood studio production made the final cut, along with an American independent and three importsoffer incontrovertible evidence that the industry (er, Industry) no longer believes itself capable of making award-worthy pictures.
Monster’s other telling omission is Dunne’s refusal to include a personal evaluation of Up Close & Personal; he evades this responsibility by quoting snippets of positive and negative reviews. Thus, readers lucky enough to have missed the movie never learn that it turned out to be a shambles, an incoherent potboiler that squandered the talents of Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stockard Channing, and Kate Nelligan. Had he offered a candid appraisal of the film’s artistic bankruptcy, or warts-and-all portraits of any of the industry’s prevailing moguls, Dunne and Didion would have risked being stricken from studio screenwriter A-lists. Goodbye lucrative assignments, movie-star hobnobbing, vacations in France and Italy, multiple dwellingseven health insurance. Instead, in a craven, rapacious maneuver that would make a whore blush, Dunne has turned the ultimate trick: parlaying his involvement in a lousy movie into a lousy book.CP